Mississippi Chinese Lady goes home to Korea

She loves kimchi as much as chowchow, but our Southern-born and -raised food editor, Ann Taylor Pittman, had never been to the birth country of her mother.
By: Ann Taylor Pittman

The gift of the dance

As the time comes to go to Hapcheon to meet our uncle and his wife, I think again about my mother: her life in Mississippi, her life before that. Growing up, I knew very little of her life in Korea; stories were not volunteered, and it felt forbidden—even rude—to ask. When I finally did ask, I heard of the sort of family tragedy and poverty that lurks in the history of so many immigrants. Her mother died when she was 12 years old, and she grew up during the Korean War, "when everyone was so terribly poor," she says. My mother tells of sneaking out to the Red Cross soup kitchen not far from her house, something her father wouldn't have condoned. On a cold day, she stood in the long line for a tiny ration of milky soup. "It didn't even touch my stomach, reach my hunger," she says. She sneaked back for a second serving. "I was wearing an overcoat and two-sided scarf. I wanted to disguise myself, so I took my scarf off and changed it around to the other side, a different color. But I bet they knew. And they knew that little bit of soup wasn't enough. They didn't say anything, just gave me more soup. It was a blessing."

Now, finally, I am to meet my mother's brother and his wife. In the Busan bus terminal, Tim and I puzzle over how to get to Hapcheon. A tiny woman approaches, touches my arm, and speaks rapid Korean. Unlike in Seoul, where no one took me for Korean, the Busan natives would do this, talk to me in Korean. It makes sense, in my romantic interpretation: This is the place my mother is from; I am with my people, and they recognize me as one of them. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," I explain to the tiny woman, and turn away toward the ticket window. Something rings in my ear, though: Did she call me Ann? We go back to where she still stands, smile fading, clutching an orange envelope. She points to me, then Tim, and says our names. And then, in perfect English, she says, "I am Suzie's sister." This is my mother's sister, my Aunt Su Kyong, whom we were told was too frail to travel, to even visit—now come to surprise us! I laugh and choke and hug her with American aggression, and she reveals what she is carrying: photos of her and my mother, my uncle and his wife, a portrait from my brother's wedding, and a blurry Polaroid from 1975 of my brother and me in our fancy Korean clothing. The three of us board the bus, and I wonder what she must have felt in those few seconds when we turned away from her, how her heart must have fallen.

In the small town of Hapcheon, about a two-hour bus ride from Busan, we meet Uncle Chi Bong and his wife and accept a restaurant recommendation from the local taxi drivers. We settle around a table and smile sheepishly at each other—Aunt Su Kyong will speak no more English today—as we await a soup version of bulgogi, a local specialty. I notice that my uncle has brought in a pristine calendar from, oddly, 1999. He also has a map of the area and shows us where he has planned to take us: the burial site of our great-grandfather, then Hapcheon Lake, then the rhododendron festival at Mount Hwangmaesan.

The soup cooks on the table as we try to be together without staring (yet we can't help but stare). My uncle taps his index fingers together and says to me, "You and your mother are the same person. You are just alike." He cannot know how this makes me want to cry. After conferring with his sister, Uncle Chi Bong declares that Tim has our grandfather's eyes and brow. Uncle turns to the back of the calendar and shows us a colorful map of the United States annotated with notes about where my brother, my parents, and I live. We slurp the soup, and I love it—slivers of marinated beef in lots of broth with glass noodles and clusters of enoki mushrooms. Uncle Chi Bong goes out to the car and returns with bags of fruit, a knife, and little plastic trays. Aunt Su Kyong goes to work peeling and cutting apples and oranges, preparing them exactly as my mother does. She pushes them our way and keeps nudging until every piece is eaten.

There is much driving until we find the burial site, which calls for a hot hike up the side of a mountain; my relatives are showing us our ancestry. We lay out a blanket and Uncle has cold waters and sesame biscuits for us. After a short rest, we wind our way around to the lakeside spot, where we enjoy cashews and almonds and more fruit, this time cold pineapple—and then we receive the gift of the dance. After a winding drive to the rhododendron festival, we learn that we are about a week early; only a few flowers are blooming. Uncle Chi Bong's wife explains, disappointed, that at full peak, the entire mountainside is a breathtaking pink. We decide to walk a little ways up to take pictures by the few blooming bushes, and Uncle buys hot roasted chestnuts for the hike. He seems pleased that we love the chestnuts, which are hot and fresh and sweet and tender. He frets over us the way our mother does. Then it is time to leave.

Many GPS miscues later, followed by stops to ask for directions, we reach the Hapcheon bus terminal for the ride back to Busan. Uncle Chi Bong says, "Lunch is not enough. We go to dinner. Your aunt's treat." We can't accept. We have to get back to Busan so we can pack and take a high-speed train across the country for our flight out of Incheon. Their faces fall at this news. They purchase our bus tickets and stand as a little congregation of three, unsure of how to part ways. I have just met these people, but they have shown me such kindness. I don't know if I will ever see them again, and the good-bye is excruciating. Aunt Mi Yang, my uncle's wife, blurts out, "I love you!" and I am gobsmacked by a realization that is as true as anything I've known: I may or may not be Korean, but I am part of this Korean family.

A week later, when I am back in Alabama, my uncle calls my mother and says he feels terrible about how the day went—that they didn't like how the restaurant served such an oddball version of bulgogi, that the lake suffered from drought, that the flowers weren't blooming. The day was a disaster and they had failed. I find this reaction to be very Korean, and very Southern—self-doubt and regret, plus something else, a deep obligation. We Southerners and South Koreans want you to know that we know when things aren't perfect, and we'll always point out the flaws before you do. I reassure my mother that, for me, the day was perfect. The reluctance of rhododendrons is not important when you find, in some far corner of the world, part of your place in the world.

All that day in Hapcheon, my aunt and uncle fed us. Food, of course, is used everywhere to signify the bonds between people, but these people, this food, this place: It all had huge significance to me. Bulgogi, dumplings, raw fish, and milky-sweet confusing rice beer felt as much a part of my DNA as field peas and boiled peanuts did back home. Which was why I could stand by a lake a world away from Mississippi and be moved to tears by a shy dancer in a rented dress, knowing that I had been loved.